Two weeks after the people of Scotland narrowly voted in a referendum not to leave the United Kingdom, efforts have turned to rebuilding national unity in the wake of a hard-fought campaign. In a country fabled for its glens and highlands, clans and whisky, many think the Catholic Church is well placed to help, thanks to its teachings on reconciliation and the common good.
“It’ll take time for the dust to settle — a lot of people are deeply upset things didn’t turn out as they’d hoped,” John Deighan, the Scottish bishops’ parliamentary officer, told Our Sunday Visitor. “But our Church upholds a faith which unites, rather than divides. It can act as a stable force now, encouraging a responsible, respectful dialogue within our democratic structures about the kind of Scotland we all want.”
The Sept. 18 referendum vote — 44.7 percent for independence and 55.3 percent against, on a high turnout of 85 percent — was welcomed by those defending the 307-year-old union of Scotland and England, who feared the economic, social and political consequences if the Scots broke away. It came as a devastating blow, however, to Scotland’s governing National Party, which has sought separate statehood since the 1960s and is unlikely to have another chance of achieving it for a generation.
Many Scots hope the country’s churches can now promote reconciliation and help tackle the alienation and disaffection highlighted by the independence drive.
“Sadly, too many of our fellow citizens of this great city of Glasgow appear to feel disenfranchised by the political process, and feel threatened and disheartened by poor life chances and by indecent levels of poverty and deprivation. I
think that was what the referendum voting figures for Glasgow may have been pointing to.”
— Archbishop Philip Tartaglia of Glasgow in a Sept. 21 homily.
“We’ve much to be proud of. Although the campaign became highly polarized, there was little violence or aggression,” said Liz Leydon, editor of the Scottish Catholic Observer. “But the issues and concerns raised during this campaign must also be understood and addressed. The old ties of deference and geography now have to be set aside and re-examined.”
With independence now off the radar, the politicians are under pressure to make good on their pledge. But some commentators question whether they had the authority to promise greater autonomy anyway, while nationalists in England, Wales and Northern Ireland insist they should now have greater devolved powers as well.
“There’s a lot of emotional energy around now, which needs to be channeled in a more coherent direction,” Deighan said. “I think our Church can also foster a sense of civic duty and encourage people to work patiently together. But it should also press for the institutions to listen to those participating at grass roots level.”
Although Catholics — making up 12 percent of the population — voted strongly for the Scottish National Party in 2007 and 2011, Church leaders grew concerned at what they saw as the SNP’s secularizing agenda, which included support for same-sex unions and plans to cut state funding from Catholic schools. The Bishops’ Conference of Scotland responded by staying neutral during the referendum, merely urging Catholics, through its president, Archbishop Philip Tartaglia of Glasgow, to make a “prayerful judgment.”
The bishops commended all those who had taken part in the vote in a statement, and they took part in an ecumenical service of reconciliation in Edinburgh’s Anglican St. Giles’ Cathedral.
Just how that reconciliation can be achieved is now under discussion. John Haldane, a Catholic philosopher at Scotland’s ancient St. Andrew’s University, is skeptical about how much Catholics can and should contribute.
“Scots are a disputatious people — and arguing is part of our DNA — but we’re also robust, and we don’t generally nurse our wounds,” Haldane told OSV. “It clearly suited the pro-independence side to suggest Scotland would be torn apart if things didn’t go their way. But it’s overstated to think we’re now in need of healing, and the Church has been wise to play this down.”
John Deighan, the Scottish bishops’ parliamentary officer, disagrees. Although Catholics are a minority in Scotland, secularization over the past two decades has given them an important voice in national life, he argues. It’ll be needed now as citizens try to make judgments about the future.
“It’s often a failure of politics that people are seen as not just wrong, but also bad. I think the Church can help break this down by fostering a readiness to see the good intentions of others, whether they favored becoming independent or keeping the union,” Deighan said. “But it can also encourage people to stay engaged in politics and direct their enthusiasm to worthy causes. Whatever we think is wrong, and whatever changes we want to see, Christians should be the leaven in creating a better society. Catholic social teaching encourages us to look for the good in all situations.”
Some Scots think an often narrow focus on economics and politics obscured the deeper anxiety felt by many small national groups in a Europe facing ever closer centralization and integration.
The Scottish ballot was watched closely by Catalans and Basques in Spain and other autonomous peoples; and although the outcome has denied the precedent many hoped for, disputes over sovereignty and self-determination look set to drag on.
In a June interview with Spain’s La Vanguardia daily, Pope Francis reiterated the Catholic Church’s traditional support for the legitimate rights of national groups, but cautioned that independence demands should be approached carefully on their merits without causing conflict.
Father Tom Boyle, spokesman for the Scottish bishops’ conference, thinks that provides a useful framework for assessing nationalist campaigns in places like Scotland. The near miss with Scottish independence could launch a new political era in which traditional decision-making elites have to be more responsive to the concerns of ordinary people.
“Very often now, the political parties are so similar in their economic and social outlooks that people become indifferent, but this was an issue which really mattered, and in which their votes really counted,” the bishops’ conference spokesman told OSV.
“The Catholic Church has some useful principles to offer — solidarity, subsidiarity and concern for the common good — when deciding which policy options are best. But it can also help ensure goodwill triumphs and that the energies and resources ploughed into campaigns like this are used for the benefit of everyone,” Father Boyle said. “Whatever difficulties now lie ahead, it’s time to take down the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ posters and become one Scotland again.”
Jonathan Luxmoore writes from Poland.